Saturday, September 25, 2010

making sense of Macondo I

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

(On second thought, slightly revised 1 Oct 2010...)

News came in last Sunday, five months after the blowout, that the Macondo well is finally sealed. On 20 April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing eleven workers (plus two who died later) and leading to an out-of-control gusher at the bottom of the seafloor, 1,500 m deep and 66 km from the Louisiana coast. In May BP tried to disperse and collect the oil; efforts to seal the well failed. In June, a plug was inserted in the well-head, and some of the oil was siphoned off to a tanker. In July a cap was put on the wellhead; on 10 July 2010 BP said that the cap was holding, but it wasn’t clear whether oil was still seeping out. Relief-wells were drilled. In August, the containment was strengthened. On 19 Sept 2010 the well was declared sealed.

Estimates of the spill amount vary, partly because of BP’s attempted cover-up (barring scientists outside the company from examining the site), partly because of the US government lowballing the numbers. Why the federal government tried to hide the damage and protect the corporation is not entirely clear. There are also physical reasons for the variation in estimate. The spill happened a mile below the surface. The mixture spilled consisted of heavy crude, light oil, and gas, with the heavy stuff sinking to the ground, the light stuff rising to the surface, and the rest hovering as giant plumes in the deep. The corporation sprayed dispersant to make the oil that had risen to the surface go away again. From a physicist’s viewpoint, dispersing oil while collecting oil is stupid—if you scatter it you can't gather it, and if you gather it you shouldn’t scatter it. From a sociologist’s perspective, using dispersants during collection is smart, because the US culture is empirically oriented. If you don't see it, it can't be bad. Indeed, various GOP leaders said just that. (The same out-of-sight-out-of-mind cognition contributes to climate denial in the U.S. culture.)

Best estimates came from outside academics not on the corporate payroll or under federal pressure. The oil spill lasted 87 days. The amount spilled is 205 mil gallons or 4.9 mil barrels according to the New York Times, 870 mil liters or 600,000 tons of crude according to Die Zeit, and 780,000 cubic meters according to Nouvel Obs. It is the largest marine oil spill in human history. (Two spills on land, the 1991 Kuwait-Iraq Gulf War spill and the 1910 California Lakeview gusher, were larger.) Let’s put this in context. The worst spill for Europeans was the 1978 Amoco Cadiz breaking up at France’s coast, spilling 1.6 mil barrels of crude. The worst spill for Americans before 2010 was the Exxon Valdez shipwreck at Alaska’s Prince William sound in 1989, spilling between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels. What happened in the Gulf 2010 was three times as bad as the Amoco Cadiz spill, and between six and nineteen times as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill.

Some argue that the Macondo blowout was not as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill. The former occurred in the Gulf in summer, when air and sea temps are hot. The latter occurred in Alaska in March, when air and sea temps are cold. The heat in and over the Gulf, they say, allowed much oil to evaporate and be eaten by bacteria. The cold at Prince William Sound let the oil wash onshore as is. It sounds sensible and would be nice if it were true. Two problems, though. One, the bacteria in the Gulf ate the methane but not the oil. Two, the oil spilled in the deep sea, where the temps are cold too; only little of the oil made it to the surface where heat is a factor.

The oil that rests on the ground and hovers in plumes will in all likelihood create dead zones. The marine ecosystem is running, but not as well anymore. American Capitalism has done to the Gulf what Soviet Communism once did to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic went partly dead; jelly fish took over; biodiversity plummeted. The Gulf awaits a similar fate. Here heat is a liability. Cold waters are nutrient-rich, warm waters are nutrient-poor. Gulf temps are rising with climate change anyway, and the anoxic zones that may emerge would only speed up the marine desertification. This also means that the Gulf’s climatic function, to take up atmospheric carbon, is now impaired.

But all of this is systemic and subtle, rational and predictive. It’s not empirically ‘there’ or in your face. The beaches are pristine. The water is great. The swimming is awesome. It’s back to the old normal. There are still no solar collectors on people’s houses. There are no wind turbines in sight. There are no new nuclear power plants. The government still refuses to give subsidies to green housing. Florida construction companies or at least those that haven’t gone under yet still build inefficient McMansions. There’s still the same giant volume of automobile traffic on Florida’s highways. Most motorists still drive obese SUVs, outsized pickups, and infantile Hummers. Only Mexican gardeners and the Mad Hun bicycle. The first modest high speed rail project in Florida is still an open question; the received federal funds must be matched by state funds for construction to start, and the state coffers are empty. A subway system isn’t even on the drawing board. No Floridian would even dream about building a metro here; they say the city’s too close to sea level and there’s water underground. Shanghai and Kaohsiung (Taiwan) are as close to sea level as Tampa is, both have terrific subway systems, with very cool Siemens-built trains. France and England are joined by the 50 km long high-speed Chunnel under the North Sea. But, it appears that the engineering vision realized in Europe and Asia remains a foreign perspective here.

All in all, the BP oil spill wasn’t big enough to make Gulf Coast residents shake off their carbon complacency. From what I see in Tampa Bay, the American Disenlightenment continues. To me, that's the meaning of the Macondo blowout in the Gulf. At least, that's the environmental sense I draw from it. Scott Schneider rightly reminded me, however, that the ethical dimension of Macondo is an altogether different story.

To be continued ...

Seventy-five months left.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

sustainability's end

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

More than 14 percent of the US population, I read in the NYT today (9.18.10, B Herbert, ”Two Different Worlds”), now lives in poverty. Yesterday I read in the Economist (9.9.10, Report on Latin America) that Chile's proportion of poor people has fallen to less than 14 percent.

But this post is not about the Bush legacy. There's a bigger picture, of the forcing of world climate and the declining stability of the Earth system. The cover of Scientific American’s current issue, vol. 303, no. 3, is held in red, with two words dominating the page: the end.

One of the features of this month’s issue, under the rubric “risk analysis,” is “Laying the Odds on the Apocalypse,” by J Matson, 82-83. It’s all in good cheer (or not), as the author puts the odds for runaway global warming at “one in 2 in the next 200 years”. The risk he’s worried about (p. 82), citing H Pollack, professor at Michigan, emeritus in geophysics, and author of A World Without Ice (2009), is that it’ll be “touch and go as to whether we can actually achieve the avoidance of Greenland and West Antarctic ice loss,” which would raise global sea levels by 12 m (39 ft). “The consequences of displacing so many people—the world has never dealt with something like that.”

Maybe the chances of the lesser of the South Polar ice sheets slipping, and of Greenland’s interior ice melting and draining, are fifty-fifty in the next two centuries, who knows. Two years ago Sci Am published a paper by R Bell on how this might go (key phrase: greasing the skids). And surely, since half of the world's population lives within 100 km of the sea, this would mean upheaval. Here at the campus of the University of South Florida I’m 6 m (19 ft) above sea levels. All of south Florida, up to Gainesville, would have to be evacuated—that’s twelve million people.

But this nonlinear specter of climate forcing is just one of many climate worries. Plus, it's still a long shot. It isn’t the really dangerous stuff. The real danger is that more heat means less water. The danger is dwindling agricultural productivity. Just look at Darfur. Sudan’s humanitarian catastrophe was brought on by violence; violence was partly worsened, partly brought on by scarcity; scarcity was brought on by environmental decline, and that was brought on by the monsoon not coming as regularly anymore as it once did. Darfur is now too dry for both farmers and herders coexisting on the same land. So they’re killing each other.

Shrinking harvests, I think, is the ugly reality of climate change. Slipping ice sheets makes for a good story. Crappy crop yields in poor countries doesn't. Right now the Arctic sea ice reflects eighty percent of the solar radiation. When the ice floes dissolve in sea water, only twenty percent of insolation will be bounced back. The rest will feed straight into the Earth system. Think of a wooden shack in the desert heat with a block of ice inside. As long as the sea ice is there, it cools things down. Once the ice is gone, the shack will get hot. We’ve hit the summer sea ice minimum now. It’s less than 2009, and the third lowest overall. Charting a graph yields a picture that Tamino calls a death spiral.

And nothing is done. J Sachs, professor at Columbia, director of the Earth Institute, and columnist at Scientific American, wrote a farewell column called “The Deepening Crisis” (read full text here). It’s a scathing conclusion and a damning verdict. Excerpts:

During the four years of this column, the world's inability to face up to the reality of the growing environmental crisis has become even more palpable. Every major goal that international bodies have established for global environmental policy as of 2010 have been postponed, ignored, or defeated. Sadly, this year will quite possibly become the warmest on record, yet another testimony of human-induced environmental catastrophes running out of control.

This was to be the year of biodiversity. In 2002 nations pledged ... to slow significantly the planetary loss of biodiversity by 2010. This goal was not even remotely achieved. Indeed, it was barely even noticed by Americans: the U.S. signed the convention in 1992 but never ratified it. Ratification fell victim to the uniquely American delusion that virtually all of nature should be subdivided into parcels of private property, within which owners should have their way.

This year was also to be the start of a new post-Kyoto treaty, but that effort was stillborn by the continuing paralysis of U.S. policy making. President Barack Obama came empty-handed to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, and the U.S., China and other powers settled for a nonbinding declaration of sentiments and goals rather than an operational strategy and process of implementation.

According to Obama's 2008 election campaign, this was to be the first year of a new climate and energy policy for the U.S., too, and the second year of a "green recovery". We've had neither. The recovery has sputtered: Obama bet on "stimulating" exhausted consumers rather than on a long-term program of public investments in sustainable infrastructure. The Senate, true to form, sustained its 18th year of inaction on global warming since ratifying the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. ... We are losing not just time but the margin of planetary safety, as the world approaches or trespasses on various thresholds of environmental risks. With the human population continuing to rise by 75 million or more per year and with torrid economic growth in much of the developing world, the burdens of deforestation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, ocean acidification, and other massive threats intensify ... [We must] bring objective science to the public sphere and to empower a democratic citizenry who must become responsible stewards of the planet before it is too late.

Seventy-five months left.

Monday, September 06, 2010

as good as it gets

-- climate happenings are at the data bank --

Surfing the data wave can sweep one into troubled waters. Contradictory swirls abound these days. One the one hand there's The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009), the best yet of J. Lovelock's Gaia-series, a persuasive argument for why we are at the brink. Lovelock's views are shared by the likes of E. O. Wilson, J. Hansen, or the late S. Schneider. Numerous recent and well-researched books evoke a dark future. Some of them are Houghton's Global Warming (2004), Flannery's Weathermakers (2005), Wilson's Creation (2006), Ward's Under a Green Sky (2007), Pearce's With Speed and Violence (2007), and Hansen's Storms of my Grandchildren (2009). Every year, more peer-reviewed articles with worrisome findings appear. S. Rahmstorf (Science '07) showed how the IPCC underestimates global warming; the speed of events, such as that of sea level rise, is outpacing the AR projections. J. Polovina (Geophys Res Let '08) showed a feedback loop between heat and algae; algae cool oceans down, but as sea water temps creep higher, the algae die. It's like brakes melting off a runaway train. N. Shakova (Geophys Res Abstr 2008) observed methane outgassing in the tundra; another loop: rising GHG concentrations thaw the tundra, which releases CH4, raises GHG concentrations, and thaws the tundra more. E. Shur (Nature 2009) found another nasty loop: the more outgassing takes place, the less carbon plants can take up. This is yet another brakeshoe melting off the runaway train. Each single positive feedback loop alone, the speed, the algae, the methane, the carbon uptake, is already disturbing. But all of them together? And I haven't even mentioned the extra heating that will start up in the Arctic basin once the floating polar ice will be gone. Eighty percent sunlight will then be absorbed in the North Polar sea, instead of the twenty percent now. Then we'll all feel the heat. We're looking at a lengthening queue of extremely scary harbingers.

On the other hand, a paper appeared by C. Raudsepp-Hearne (Bioscience 2010), which reminds us that despite the environmental decline human wellbeing is getting ever better. D. Biello at the Scientific American blog rightly asks, if the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?

So what is it now? Are we going down? Or is it just that nature as our grandparents had known it is vanishing, while we're actually doing fine? Has technology decoupled our wellbeing from that of the biosphere, as the Bioscience authors seem to suggest?

Does this mean we can finally relax? Or is this global situation now similar to the Florida housing bubble right before it burst, when everybody was happily maxing out their credit cards?

In the midst of such contradictory eddies and whirls it is refreshing to read an account of the new reality at the science news site of New York Times. At the topics site dedicated to climate news, there's a recently updated summary of global warming, which is as good as it gets:

Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. On the one hand, warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases--produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests. On the other, the technological, economic, and political issues that have to be resolved before a concerted worldwide effort to reduce emissions can begin have gotten no simpler, particularly in the face of a global economic slowdown.

World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in Dec 2009 for a session that had been years in the making but that fell short of even the lowered expectations with which it opened. The 192 nations in attendance at the end merely agreed to try to reach a binding accord before a follow-up meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in Dec 2010. By the summer, Ban-Ki moon, the UN Secretary General, was saying that no sweeping accord was likely, and recommending that a better approach might consist of small steps in separate fields that built toward wider consensus.

At the heart of the international debate is a momentous tussle between rich and poor countries over who steps up first and who pays most for changed energy menus.

In the US, Democratic leaders in the Senate in July 2010 gave up on reaching even a scaled-down climate bill, in the face of opposition from Republicans and some energy-state Democrats. The House had passed a broad cap-and-trade bill in 2009.

In the meantime, recent fluctuations in temperature have intensified the public debate over how urgently to respond. A string of large snowstorms in the Washington area and freezing weather in Florida in the winter of 2009-2010 were seized on by climate change skeptics. but the combination of flooding, heat waves and droughts in the summer were taken by most researchers trained in climate analysis as evidence to show that weather extremes are getting worse.

The long-term warming trend over the last century has been well-established, and scientists immersed in studying the climate are projecting substantial disruption in water supplies, agriculture, ecosystems and coastal communities. Passionate activists at both ends of the discourse are pushing ever harder for or against rapid action, while polls show the public locked durably in three camps--with roughly a fifth of American voters eager for action, a similar proportion aggressively rejecting projections of catastrophe and most people tuned out or confused. (read more)

There are some qualifiers, to be sure, but more about them next time.

Seventy-five months left.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

shifting into second gear

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

After coming back from Asia, I screened the data flow about climate change and wrote up two posts on the data bank, one two weeks ago, another over the past few days. Point, as always, is to find a gestalt, of what's been happening to Mama Gaia over the summer. Backdrop of this gestalt is the just published NOOA report, the upshot being that 2009 was warmer than 2008, that 2009 was one of the top 10 warmest years on record, the 2000s (the decade from 2000 to 2009) was the warmest decade on record, and that 2009 was the 19th consecutive year that the world's glaciers have been losing mass.

This year we've seen an amazingly extensive heatwave covering the entire northern hemisphere, blistering Russia and blanketing Eurasia from coast to coast, from Ireland and Britain to Taiwan and Japan. Concurrently the heatwave set temperature records from Las Vegas to New York. Has a heatwave of this extent ever happened before? From new year to late summer, we've also seen flood extremes, worst in Pakistan, and violent seasonal swings, worst in Mongolia.

Since starting this blog, I've felt like one of those surreal archivists in a sci-fi novel by Clifford P Simak, or a witness to a world that would give birth to a Walter M. Miller-like Canticle for Leibowitz. And now I'm getting the feeling climate change is shifting into second gear.

P.S.: sorry to say so, because I wish speedy recovery to the Gulf shrimpers, but Gulf of Mexico shrimp right now taste like dish soap, which is presumably the flavor of Corexit. They also give you a stomach ache, which is no surprise, because the dispersant is toxic.

Seventy-five months left.